Are data centers for our digital lifestyle the equivalent of slaughterhouses for the meat industry, both huge facilities where the dirty work we’d rather not think about gets done?
Every time we upload photos to Facebook, livestream a movie from Netflix, send an email with a PDF attached, we’re sending data through mega-sized data centers packed with rows on rows on rows of air-conditioned servers, each a “sort of bulked-up desktop computer, minus a screen and keyboard, that contains chips to process data,” says the New York Times.
Here are five reasons your email is not as green and clean as we would like to think.
1. Your email is not so “virtual” after all.
We might think emails, Tweets, Facebook status updates and all the music files and photos we’ve uploaded are neatly, cleanly stored in the cloud. But while we do not see all that data, it does exist physically, on a vast army of data servers stored in huge warehouse-like buildings.
2. Data centers can waste 90 percent of their energy.
Just in 2010, data centers in the US used up two percent of all electricity in the country, a whopping 76 billion kilowatt-hours. But most of this energy is wasted.
Globally, data centers use about 30 billion watts of electricity, about as much energy as 30 nuclear reactors. But they use only about 6 to 12 percent of their energy to perform computations with your data, according to an analysis by the consulting firm McKinsey & Company for the New York Times. The rest of the energy is used just to keep servers idling.
3. The cloud’s back-up system runs on diesel.
To satisfy our desire to access anything on the Internet 24/7 and fast, companies keep data centers operating at full capacity 100 percent of the time, even though only a fraction of the machines’ “brainpower” is actually being used at any moment. While the technology exists (and is marketed by a Santa Clara-based company, Power Assure) to limit energy usage in data centers at night when demand is less, no data centers in Silicon Valley have opted to use it.
Indeed, data center operators get bonuses for keeping them going 99.99 percent of the time. Diesel generators are lined up outside the centers as a back-up in case there’s a power outage.
4. More and more data centers have been cited for violating clear air regulations.
Many of Silicon Valley’s data centers are listed on the state government’s Toxic Air Contaminant Inventory, which keeps track of the “top stationary diesel polluters.”
The Department of Environmental Quality of the state of Virginia levied a six-figure fine on Amazon because it was installing and routinely running diesel generators without standard environmental permits.
5. We’re a big part of the reason that data centers are so inefficient and dirty.
It’s not just movies we want “on demand.” It’s everything the internet can offer, from fantasy football to YouTube videos to tunes from Pandora. “With no sense that data is physical or that storing it uses up space and energy … consumers have developed the habit of sending huge data files back and forth, like videos and mass e-mails with photo attachments,” the New York Times explains. We don’t realize sending a 4-minute video clip “could involve a trip through hundreds or thousands of miles of Internet conduits and multiple data centers before the e-mail arrives across the street.”
The very virtualness of digital data has led us to think it leaves no mark but it most certainly does. “Of all the things the Internet was expected to become, it is safe to say that a seed for the proliferation of backup diesel generators was not one of them,” says the New York Times.
We have been able to vastly cut down the amount of paper we use thanks to email and the Internet. But relying exclusively on “the cloud” still takes a huge toll on the environment.
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